Five years ago a major consulting firm sent its clients an e-mail in an attempt to dissuade them from attending the annual Behavior Safety Now (BSN) conference. The e-mail stated disappointment in the quality of the conference presentations, and added, “The conference has become a showcase for academics and ‘wannabe’ consultants.” That year I was a keynote speaker at the BSN conference, as I have been every year since its inception.

I began my address with a display of select portions from this e-mail, including the quote given above. Then I admitted to being both an academic and a “wannabe” consultant.

Yes, I’m proud to have been in academia for almost 40 years, meaning I’ve taught and conducted research at a large public university since 1969.

And I’m a “wannabe” consultant. From the start of my academic career I’ve had a passionate desire to translate research-based findings and principles into practical real-world procedures. For the past 30 years, I’ve fulfilled this desire by teaching useful principles and procedures to real-world practitioners and agents of change.

Over the years I’ve become a better consultant. I’ve continued to gain more research-based information, and I’ve learned through feedback how to communicate academic knowledge more effectively — from my oral presentations to written expression in books, magazines, and conference proceedings. But I want to improve further — at teaching practical research-derived knowledge to enrich the health, safety, and human welfare of clients I serve and the public in general. I am a “wannabe better” consultant.

Valuing the differences

I learned the hard way to adjust my academic stance when in the public forum. First, I found I needed to refrain from using complex rhetoric, or verbal behavior used to appear intellectual or professional. This is one of academia’s biggest problems — the failure to disseminate research findings with language everyone can readily understand.

What a disappointment to have important principles and applications couched in a scholarly lingo that isn’t readily digested by the public. That leaves the diffusion of information to the less-than-academic “pop psychologists” who often water down good information. But if these individuals don’t put it out there, too often it would not get beyond the ivory towers of academia.

Next I realized I should hold back on naming the “pop psychology” authors I was criticizing. It took the focus away from the point I was making. And I activated in the minds of my audience the names of the very persons I wanted them to forget.

In the academic world we reference everything that is not entirely original. We are careful to recognize the original source of information, even when challenging or discrediting certain aspects of that information. In contrast, consultants rarely reveal the source of material they use or discount, nor do they criticize other consultants or their material. They stick to presenting their own perspective without regard to the origins of that perspective.

I appreciate the consultants’ avoidance of public critique of another consultant’s procedures. Still, the academic in me wishes consultants would give credit to those individuals (usually academics) who first developed a particular approach. I’ve found audiences appreciate hearing where consultants learned the information they share.

One’s competence as a consultant is not diminished by giving credit to the original source of a particular principle or procedure. Indeed, by referring to solid research supporting a particular intervention process, you very likely increase your own credibility. But try to find the primary research-based source rather than crediting an author who merely describes the work of someone else. If you have difficulty finding a primary source, contact an academic. Knowing the sources of information in their discipline is the academic’s forte.

Additional differences

The table on this page summarizes these and additional distinctions between academics and consultants. These differences are not given to pit one against the other, nor to give one more status. I offer these distinctions to increase understanding, and perhaps stimulate beneficial collaboration and mutual learning between academics and consultants. Indeed, I’m convinced each profession can benefit from the strengths of the other.

As an academic I must emphasize the differences listed here are biased. They are merely my own observations, obtained over a 30-year career of attempting to perform effectively in both worlds. I feel privileged to have played the role of both academic and consultant. I have learned from each profession.

The quality of my academic performance has improved as a function of my consulting experiences, and vice versa. For this reason, I believe each profession can benefit significantly from the other. Each can build from the strengths of the other, with each profession improving from the process.

How consultants could help academics

  • Consultants can teach academics how to better present their theories and research findings to the public.
  • Consultants can solicit real-world problems in need of research attention.
  • Consultants can pose application-focused questions in need of empirical answers.
  • Consultants can help academics find practical applications for their research findings.
  • Consultants can inspire academics to be more application-oriented in their theories, research, and scholarship.

How academics could help consultants

  • Academics can provide research-based rationale for selecting one intervention approach over another.
  • Academics can increase a consultant’s credibility by providing the primary source of a principle or
  • procedure.
  • Academics can teach consultants how to develop, administer, analyze, and interpret basic assessment devices like perception and culture surveys.
  • Academics can show consultants how to interpret and use data from a statistical analysis.
  • Academics can advise consultants what scholarship to read in order to improve particular aspects of their practice.


I sincerely hope readers will not view this presentation as an attempt to demean academia or the practice of consulting. I want readers to see this as a balanced discussion of strengths and limitations of each profession. More importantly, I hope you see ways academics and consultants can learn from each other, thereby becoming more effective at serving the health, safety, and welfare of those who pay their salaries.

Of course, this type of improvement is more about experiencing greater intrinsic rewards for making bigger and better differences in the human dynamics of work, play, and everything in between.